Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

It’s hard to spot similarities between Virginia Woolf and the Somerville novelists I’ve been looking at if you focus on Woolf’s fiction. Winifred Holtby wrote a book about Woolf, and as I noted in my post about Testament of Friendship, she did so deliberately because she knew Woolf was such a different novelist: “I took my courage and curiosity in both hands and chose the writer whose art seemed most of all removed from anything I could ever attempt, and whose experience was most alien to my own.”

A Room of One’s Own, with its framing focus on women’s education and particularly on the material differences between women’s colleges and their male counterparts, brings out an important point of convergence, if also another distinction, as unlike Holtby and Brittain and Kennedy and Sayers, Woolf did not go to university herself. It’s in Three Guineas, though, as I have just (belatedly, I know) discovered, that Woolf really shows herself their contemporary, as the issues she focuses on are very much those that dominate their non-fiction as well. Woolf’s arguments offer nothing like the sharp direct hits of Holtby and Brittain’s social and political journalism: as in A Room of One’s Own, she is indirect, circuitous, ironic; she ventriloquizes both questioners and audiences, sets up targets only to slyly destroy them, hypothesizes, imagines, projects. Her conclusions are not single and direct but layered and proliferating. I have taught A Room of One’s Own several times. Once, in a course evaluation, a student raged that it made her “want to gouge [her] eyes out with an ice pick.” Ridiculous! A Room of One’s Own  is a (arguably, the) great work of non-fiction prose. But at the same time, if you go to books like these expecting the orderly presentation of an argument that proposes and then supports a straightforward thesis, well, I can see how you  might end up a little frustrated. But what a trip it is when you follow her along those byways of her thought–not as exhilarating, perhaps, as her literary essays, but with the same effect of provoking surprise and argument and active thought as you go.

In this case what I tripped across most often was her careful restriction of her arguments to “the daughters of educated men,” a class specificity for which she makes some careful arguments (mostly in the notes) but which I think raises a lot of questions about the economics of the ideals she holds out in the book. She is ruthless about the moral corruption of writing for money, for instance (poor Mrs. Oliphant, who “sold her brain, her very admirable brain, prostituted her culture and enslaved her intellectual liberty in order that she might earn her living and educate her children” – the underlying point is that she ought not to have to sell herself in this way, but isn’t there another version of this story by which writing is a good enough way to make a living? and in Mrs. Oliphant’s case at least, do we really imagine that freed of the need to make money she would have turned her “intellectual liberty” in some particularly brilliant direction?). By and large Woolf seems to characterize money as weakening to the moral fiber–though at the same time she is passionate about the need, the right, to be economically independent. You should want enough to sustain yourself, I think is the idea, but not otherwise pursue financial reward, as all too quickly then you will interest yourself in what pays best rather than what is best.

There’s lot more to be considered about the economics of Three Guineas (its whole conceit, after all, is “where shall I bestow these three precious coins?”). Given that I’m reading it as part of my “Summer of Sommerville,” though, I am particularly interested in ways it resonates with the other things I’ve been reading. On women’s education, she offers a curt history but also a trenchant commentary on the investment women across the centuries have made in the education of their brothers:

For have not the daughters of educated men paid into Arthur’s Education Fund* from the year 1262 to the year 1870 all the money that was needed to educate themselves…? Have they not paid with their own education for Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, and all the great schools and universities on the continenent…? Have they not paid so generously and lavishly if so indirectly, that when at last, in the nineteenth century, they won the right to some paid-for education for themselves, there was not a single woman who had received enough  paid-for education to be able to teach them?

She is similarly pointed on women’s enthusiasm for the first World War:

So profound was her unconscious loathing for the education of the private house with its cruelty, its poverty, its hypocrisy, its immorality, its inanity that she would undertake any task however menial, exercise any fascination however fatal that enabled her to escape. Thus consciously she desired ‘our splendid Empire’; unconsciously she desired our splendid war.

The support rests, then, not on patriotism, but on rebellion, and in fact a continuing theme of the book is women’s very different relationship to the country that expects their loyalty and service:

She will find that she has no good reason to ask her brother to fight on her behalf to protect ‘our’ country. ‘ “Our country,” ‘ she will say, ‘throughout the greater part of its history has treated me as a slave; it has denied me education or any share in its possessions. “Our” country still ceases to be mine if I marry a foreigner. “Our” country denies me the means of protecting myself, forces me to pay others a very large sum annually to protect me, and is so little able, even so, to protect me that Air Raid precautions are written on the wall. Therefore if you [men] insist on fighting to protect me, or “our” country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself of my country. For,’ the outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’

For Woolf, as for Holtby, it’s not so much the military-industrial complex that is a threat to her freedom as the military-patriarchy complex: both writers make a strenuous case for recognizing the links between the masculine will to power (which Woolf analyzes in one section of Three Guineas, with stinging condescension, as “infantile fixation”) with Fascism. In Holtby’s 1934 essay “Black Words for Women Only” she observes that Nazism has rolled back all the progress made by women between 1918 and 1933:

There is little hope for ambitious young women in Nazi Germany, where the brightest contribution of constructive economic thought towards the solution of the unemployment problem appears to have been the expulsion of large sections of the community from paid work, as a penalty for being women, Socialists or Jews, and their replacement by unobjectionable loyal male Aryans. Individual women have protested against this mass campaign to restore their economic dependence and drive them back to the kitchen. . . .

Throughout history, whenever society has tried to curtail the opportunities, interests and powers of women, it has done so in the sacred names of marriage and maternity. Exalting women’s sex until it dominated her whole life, the State then used it as an excuse for political or economic disability. . . . Today, whenever women hear political leaders call their sex important, they grow suspicious. In the importance of the sex too often has lain the unimportance of the citizen, the worker and the human being. The ‘normal’ woman knows that, given freedom and equality before the law, she can be trusted to safeguard her own interests as wife, mother, daughter, or what you will.

Pondering the contaminated “atmosphere” created by the unwanted intrusion of women into professional life (“it is likely that a name to which ‘Miss’ is attached will, because of this odour, circle in the lower spheres where the salaries are small rather than mount to the higher spheres where the salaries are substantial”) Woolf demands, in her turn, “is not the woman who has to breathe that poison and to fight that insect, secretly and without arms, in her office, fighting the Fascist or the Nazi as surely as those who fight him with arms in the limelight of publicity?” The Fascist dictator is simply the oppressive patriarch gone national:

He has widened his scope. He is interfering now with your liberty; he is dictating how you shall live; he is making distinctions not merely between the sexes but between the races. You are feeling in your own persons what your mothers felt when they were shut out, when they were shut up, because they were women. Now you are being shut out, you are being shut up, because you are Jews, because you are democrats, because of race, because of religion. It is not a photograph that you look upon any longer; there you go, trapesing along in the procession yourself. And that makes a difference. The whole iniquity of dictatorship, whether in Oxford or Cambridge, in Whitehall or Downing Street, against Jews or against women, in England, or in Germany, in Italy or in Spain is now apparent to you.

The dictator is only the extreme version of “Man himself, the quintessence of virility, the perfect type of which all the others are imperfect adumbrations”: “He is called in German and Italian Führer or Duce; in our own language Tyrant or Dictator. And behind him lie ruined houses and dead bodies – men, women, and children.”

The key lesson of Three Guineas is “that the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected; that the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.” But from this connection Woolf draws hope, and a recipe for social and political transformation:

It suggests that we cannot dissociate ourselves from that figure but are ourselves that figure. It suggests that we are not passive spectators doomed to unresisting obedience but by our thoughts and actions can ourselves change that figure. A common interest unites us; it is one world, one life. How essential it is that we should realize that unity the dead bodies, the ruined houses prove. For such will be our ruin if you, in the immensity of your public abstrations forget the private figure, or if we in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world. Both houses will be ruined, the public and the private, the material and the spiritual world, for they are inseparably connected.

I think that this desire for men and women to recognize and stand together in a united front (“now we are fighting together. The daughters and sons of educated men are fighting side by side”) lies behind her rejection of the word “feminism” (“a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete”), though this was another of the things I stumbled against, reading along. Given her insistence precisely on women’s “outsider” status, and on the particularities of their experiences and perspectives, why oppose language that identifies their cause as sex-specific? “They [those called 'feminists'] were fighting the same enemy that you are fighting and for the same reasons,” she says; “They were fighting the tyranny of the Fascist state.” But that rather erases that until the rise of the Fascist state, and indeed for those not living in a Fascist state, different groups in fact have different antagonists. She wants to make a distinction between men as private people (she is eloquent, for instance, about the excellent relationships of brothers and sisters in private life) and men as social beings: “we look upon societies as conspiracies that sink the private brother, whom many of us have reason to respect, and inflate in his stead a monstrous male, loud of voice, hard of fist . . . [who] enjoys the dubious pleasures of powers and dominion.” But men and brothers, and societies, do not exist in the abstract, and as her own examples of the ‘infantile fixation” of fathers with controlling their daughters show, the tyranny actual individual women fought was very much the tyranny of their own families, a fact that no analogy or extension to Hitler and Mussolini should erase.

But that’s what Woolf does: she provokes argument even as she compells you with the intelligence and elegance of her writing. I know she met Holtby but did not warm to her (actually, she was quite snooty about her in her letters), but I don’t know if she met Brittain (she read Testament of Youth “with extreme greed”). Do you remember the old TV show “Meeting of Minds,” hosted by Steve Allen? An episode featuring these three would absolutely bristle with intellectual excitement, political commitment, and aesthetic contrasts.

*The explanation for this is in my favorite line of the book: “You, who have read Pendennis, will remember how the mysterious letters A.E.F. figured in the household ledger.” OK, fine, Virginia, I will read Pendennis this summer!

4 Comments to Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

  1. May 15, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of the OUP joint version of ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and ‘Three Guineas’ a while back, and it made for intriguing reading. Where the former was a light, playful romp through the issues facing female would-be writers, the latter was much more densely written (and a little more difficult to follow for the poor amateur reader!). Definitely worth reading though, both for those who like Woolf’s fiction and those who are interested in the social politics of the time :)

  2. May 15, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    I read this when I was in my early 20s and found it only moderately interesting, Room of One’s Own was what got me most. But your post has my brain working now realizing how much I missed so long ago. Definitely one I will reread sometime. And please, I’d like a ticket to see your version of Meeting of the Minds please :)

  3. Rohan Maitzen's Gravatar Rohan Maitzen
    May 17, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    @Tony, I’m not sure I find Room quite as playful as all that. One thing I find really interesting about it is how angry it is, but how very carefully controlled that anger is — which is why I find Woolf’s criticism of Charlotte Bronte’s anger disingenuous! But I agree that Three Guineas is harder going. I wonder if it is less widely read in part because it is more bluntly political.

    @Stefanie, I think you might find Three Guineas pretty interesting. I’m tempted to set “Meeting of the Minds: Women, War, and Education” as an option for a class project. If done well, it could actually be very revealing about what’s at stake and what the implications are of the differences between Woolf’s arguments and Holtby’s. Done badly, though, it would be so lame that I might regret allowing it.

  4. jane murray's Gravatar jane murray
    May 23, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    I see that the film of Testament of Youth – which influenced Wool’s writing of Three Guineas – is defintely on!

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/9228971/Veras-Testament-is-young-again.html

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